Fares are no longer just about balancing public transport’s books. The sector must recognise this shift and become more proactive

Vienna’s annual ticket for one euro a day is an example of a cheap, flat and simple fare offer

That sound you hear is the sound of one of the core constructs of UK public transport policy being smashed. That construct being that if we want better public transport in the UK then the passenger has to pay through high fares. Now (as part of a wider trend in the western world) fares policy has been wrenched out of the hands of the transport technocrats and has become a tool in a wider armoury that national and local governments see as a means to tackle rising living costs. The £2 bus fare is the symbol of that in England.

It’s quite the shift. During the decades of stagnation when the technocrats and neo-liberals of the Conservative, Lib Dem and the right of the Labour Party were in charge at Westminster, public transport was seen as a business which unfortunately required a degree of public support.

Every improvement in services was a reason to make the passenger pay more and every economic downturn also required the passenger to pay more (to make up for lost users you see).

At the same time capital investment was seen as good, virtuous and economically hygienic whilst revenue support was seen as economically sleazy. Indeed some mass transit systems (like Manchester Metrolink) were forced to charge high fares because that’s the only basis on which they could go ahead.

The approach to fares of the GLC and Metropolitan councils like South Yorkshire was assumed to be as dead and buried as the organisations that promoted them

More widely, questioning this approach to fares policy was outside the Overton window of a transport debate which was all about capital investment and extending the market approach to the highways network via road pricing. The approach to fares of the GLC and Metropolitan councils like South Yorkshire was assumed to be as dead and buried as the organisations that promoted them. History had ended and if you wanted to be taken seriously the most important thing was to show that you were one of the neo-liberal grown ups.

At the same time this neo-liberal approach also led to simple journeys by bus or train becoming like venturing into a colourful noisy and exotic bazaar with various traders shouting at you. You just wanted to go to the shops, a funeral or the seaside – they wanted you to put in the same effort you would make for those trips as you would to getting the best deal for a flight or a fridge. For them spending half your life exercising consumer choice was what it meant to be truly alive. For the people on the receiving end it was an unnecessary hassle that got in the way of feeling truly alive.

As public transport fragmented, new players and payment methods emerged. But there was no real national strategy to ensure that the infrastructure that sat behind it would enable all this proliferation of fares and payment options to communicate with each other. Still isn’t – other than a belief that using the magical word ‘partnership’ in every sentence will fix it by itself due to its alchemical powers to transform the base metal of the logic of different commercial and public interests. So whilst systems were put in place via ITSO for the earlier technology of smartcards, there is no equivalent strategy or big thinking for today’s ticketing platforms.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the western world the model has been different from ours – instead of a low subsidy/high fares model there is the very opposite. By and large public transport is seen as a public service rather than a business. Even before Covid this was leading to some new approaches on fares given that public transport was less reliant on fares to start with. This was led by cities and boiled down to three different strategies.

Firstly, there are those places that went free (most famously Tallinn where public transport is free for residents).

Secondly, there were those places that went for cheap, flat and simple (such as Vienna’s annual ticket for one euro a day).

And thirdly, there are those that targeted free or very cheap fares on low income households (like Leipzig and Los Angeles).

As we all know Covid came along and devastated public transport authority finances and national governments were forced to prop them up. After Covid public transport finances remain damaged but governments are not inclined to rebase their support accordingly.

At the same time national governments are looking for ways to demonstrate they are acting on rising living costs in a highly visible way – as well as to demonstrate their green credentials. Doing something on public transport fares is perfect for this – in terms of visibility and speed. It has led to national fares offers – usually with a rail focus given that they tend to be in some form of national control. The UK hasn’t proved immune to this wider trend – hence the £2 fares offers on buses in England, firstly from city regions and then Westminster government. And hence the wider smashing of the previous consensus that radical changes on fares were out of bounds.

So where does that leave us? Firstly, in my experience at UITP and UTG, the response of transport authorities has been more reactive than proactive. Nature hates a vacuum and its politicians that therefore are leading the way on proposing fares offers – usually focusing on something shiny and grabby that someone else is doing. We have a general election coming up so this isn’t going to change unless transport authorities start to come up with their own proactive and costed propositions on fares, setting out the pros and cons of the various options. Because whatever you do on fares there will be ripples and consequences. Did you know that one of the biggest contentious points about free fares in Estonia is? It’s about malodorous drunks riding around all day for nothing. There’s always consequences when you do anything on fares.

In general, public transport fares in GB are too complicated and too expensive

We also need to step back and have a bigger debate about what we are trying to do with fares and why. In general, public transport fares in GB are too complicated and too expensive. We have attempted to mitigate this by layering on more and more long term concessionary offers where the state can be paying for more than half the users of a bus to travel for nothing whilst the rest of the passengers pay just below minicab prices. In Scotland nobody under 22 or over 60 has to pay for their bus. On top of that we are also layering on relatively short term fares offers (such as the English £2 fare offer).

There is no perfect answer to what fare level is right for whom but surely we can come up with something simpler and more cost efficient than what we have. You pay your money and you take your choice but I would plump for integrated local fares, for coherent local sub-regional networks, based on a simple, multi-modal, Vienna-style offer (so that
would be a pound a day for an annual ticket). On rail I would say the vast gap between the cheapest book-ahead and the most expensive walk-up rail ticket needs closing.

Given other challenges I don’t see the point in spending gazillions on rail infrastructure and then charging giveaway prices for optional leisure trips for middle income households so all that extra capacity is used up. It’s equally senseless to be penalising everybody when they need more flexibility for their journey by causing resentment and mockery forever at the price of doing so. At the same time the lack of a comprehensive strategy for the digital infrastructure and business rules, which sits behind new payment methods and players, needs to be addressed before fragmentation gets baked in and integration locked out.

Fares are no longer just about balancing public transport’s books they are now also about balancing household budgets. Rightly fares are now seen as part of the civic as well as the commercial

Fares are no longer just about balancing public transport’s books they are now also about balancing household budgets. Rightly fares are now seen as part of the civic as well as the commercial. Time for the transport sector to accept this and be more proactive in ensuring that the decisions about how best to meet civic goals on fares are informed by propositions that will set out all the ripples that different options will cause.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: For decades Jonathan Bray has been at the forefront of making progressive change happen on transport – from stopping the national roads programme in its tracks in the 1990s to getting buses back under public control in the 2020s. He is an advisor to the Welsh Government on bus franchising and an independent advisor. www.jonathan-bray.com

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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